We published in Thursday’s print editions the highlights of my interview with Thrashers co-owner Bruce Levenson, but there is more to share, and I’d like to share it here.
For example, we published Levenson’s comments about trying to do right by season ticket holders by not having other adults sitting in equal or better seats at discounted prices. On the other hand, the Thrashers are going to continue discounting: They just plan to target those discounts as much as possible in ways that don’t offend their most loyal customers.
“Every team does discounting to try to build a fan base. Here we don’t have the fan base that Detroit has or Toronto has so we had to be more aggressive about that, but I’ve heard extensively from our season ticket holders, and I think there’s a right way to do that and a wrong way to do that. I think we’ve made some mistakes in our aggressive desire to bring more fans into the building. I think we’ve corrected that.”
On his role in some of the more controversial deals aimed at getting the Thrashers their one playoff deal, I asked: Does that mean that when you look at general manager Don Waddell, you don’t say, “Hey, Don, why did you do this?”
“Absolutely. We did it together, with a pretty good push from ownership. Those were all collaborative efforts.”
How do you rate how he has done evaluating talent and drafting and trading?
“I’m really excited about where we are right now. We’ve got 10 players right now who came up through our system. I think we’ve had 15 over the course of the year. … I’m really excited about what our future looks like. [Bryan Little] has had really his first full season; it’s a breakout season. Zach [Bogosian] is the oldest 18-year-old I’ve ever met both in his physical on-ice presence and his off-ice maturity. Boris [Valabik] gives us something we really need back there. It’s a neat young team. Toby [Enstrom] is an extraordinary young talent. [Do you remember the Washington Capitals when the Thrashers beat them 5-1 on Nov. 21, 2007?] That team at that time was loaded with a bunch of young, exciting players who have done nothing but get better and better. They built around a superstar. I think our team has the ability to do the same thing very quickly. You look at Washington. You look at Boston. Those are teams that turned themselves around very quickly, and I am extremely optimistic about our ability to do that.”
What kind of hockey team do you want the Thrashers to be? Do you want it to be a 2-0 team or the kind of team it was trying to be at the start of the year, when it was a little more open?
“I want them to win. That’s what I want. It’s the coaching staff’s job and the GM’s job to match the talent to the style of play. That’s another interesting mistake we may have made in the early days. Coming out of the lockout the rules were changed. It was going to be faster. It was going to be higher scoring. My thing was, let’s be the fastest highest-scoring team. It sounded good on paper. That’s not necessarily the right recipe for success.”
The franchise has been to the playoffs once but hasn’t won a playoff game. What do you tell fans who want to believe but are giving up hope?
“The on-ice performance will have to speak for itself. This year has been extremely painful for me. We have been committed from Day One to building a winner here. We have understood from Day One that in order to have sustained success here we’ve got to build a winner. It’s easier said than done. It’s not going to deter us from continuing to try. We don’t have any choice. That’s what we have to do.”
How confident are you about winning the suit you have in Maryland?
“I’m not going to talk about the court case.”
With the amount of money that documents in the suit say you have been putting in each year, it doesn’t seem to be a sustainable model. Does there come a time when you’d have to sell or the team would have to move?
“Our objective from the beginning has been to turn these two franchises [the Hawks and Thrashers] around. I think initially we were making great progress with regard to the Thrashers. Ticket receipts began to turn around. Attendance began to turn around. We took a step back in the last year. On the Hawks’ side, we’ve had significant growth in ticket revenues this year. No coincidence, the team’s better. I think we understand what needs to be done.”
As the owner of a very scarce commodity, don’t you have people making inquiries about whether you’d be willing to sell it?
“With the publicity around the ownership dispute we’ve had people, including people who have come up to me at the arena, some of our best fans, who have talked to us about becoming investors with us. Those are things that until recently we really haven’t pursued. … As we wind down toward the end of the ownership dispute, those are things we’re looking at now.”
Steve Belkin has 30 percent ownership. Would you be looking for a group to come in at that level?
“Possibly. That would be an easy way to go about this.”